The soccer world was abuzz on Monday and even the hearts of neutral fans were fluttering for the latest installment of the Spanish clásico between Real Madrid and Barcelona.
But for all the glitz and glamor of the coaches, the stadium and the stars, it is one of only two matches that really count in the nearly 400 games that make up the La Liga season. After all, in five of the past six years, it has been either Barcelona or Real Madrid in the top two spots of the league standings.
The American soccer fan can enjoy the 90 minutes of spectacle and then take even more pleasure after it’s all over. That's because Monday night can make all of us appreciate that much more what we have here at home: a real league with real competition.
The hype around the Spanish clásico merely masks the issues that plague La Liga: a crippling failure to evenly distribute TV rights money, a player strike that was barely averted earlier this year for unpaid wages and question marks surrounding the financial structure of both giants.
Not only is MLS immune from the above, but it has the competitive balance to boot. All teams operate on an equal playing field. The rules may be a bit more intricate than Europe's wild west principle of “buying the best players at any cost,” but they make following MLS more interesting.
Purchasing Mesut Özil and Sammy Khedira after Germany’s stellar World Cup is too easy. Drafting Tim Ream and starting him in every game through to his first US cap? Not so easy.
[inline_node:322661]With apologies to the Leo Messi lovers out there, it’s frankly more intriguing for the American soccer fan to watch Red Bulls forward Juan Agudelo go from nobody to international goalscorer than it is to watch the Argentine pull off the same video-game moves around snapping tackles on a week-to-week basis.
In the eagerness and haste to see MLS become the best league in the world, the knee-jerk reaction in the US is often to say: Be like Europe.
But Real Madrid vs. Barcelona in many respects represents what ails the game in Europe and why the groundswell continues to grow for clubs to spend according to their budget, a policy strictly upheld in MLS.
The seventh-place team in La Liga is Atlético Madrid, and they are already 14 points away from winning the title. Cut to the chase: They’re not winning it. And there are still six months of soccer left in Spain. The seventh-best team in MLS? They hoisted the trophy a weekend ago.
But even if the playoffs are not your cup of tea, the MLS Supporters’ Shield is a more interesting race. The recently concluded 2010 MLS regular season had the top five teams within a margin of nine points. The 2009-10 La Liga season saw 37 points separating first and fifth place. Some La Liga teams don’t even get to 37 points in an entire season.
For two hours on Monday the world envies Real Madrid and Barcelona for their ability to captivate the imagination of the entire soccer universe, but American fans can walk away from their sets confident that the real envy of the soccer world is MLS.
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